Sunday, February 28, 2010

cereal. coleslaw.

Only five steps up to the battered front door and we’re soaked through. The rain is fat and cruelly direct; we flatten ourselves as far back as we can in the recess, collars up, stamping, shuffling from side to side, looking back at the truck in the street with its misted windows and seductive interior glow.

A few more knocks and Elsa opens the door. She’s on the phone, crying, pale, wild eyed, acknowledging us only in the distracted way a dreamer might acknowledge just one more damned thing in a dream. As soon as the door is fully open and without saying a word, she gives a strangled gasp, spins around and flies back into the house. We step inside; Elsa floats off through another door off to the left, the phone still pressed to her ear, her other hand distractedly raking through a haircut as dark and severe as a swimming cap.

When we catch up with her, she is sitting on the edge of a single bed, the phone dropped beside her on the rumpled sheets.

Walking into Elsa’s bedroom is like walking onto the pages of a gigantic scrapbook. Every wall is stuck with hundreds of fashion pictures cut from newspapers, magazines, printouts, a thousand over the shoulder looks, belted poses, sassy shots. Elsa fits right in; she has an aquiline quality to her face, a profile of simple strokes. She is a costumiers sketch in white and black, studying us from the bed.

‘I took a week’s worth of medication in one swallow,’ she says. ‘I’m stressed out. I’ve got deadlines. I lost track of the days, and I panicked, because I missed a load of medication and I worried what would happen. So I took it all at once. And now I feel so dizzy and panicked and everyone’s out and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.’

We talk it out. She calms down, but needs to go in to hospital.

‘You’ll want a coat,’ I say. She fetches an extravagant black bear fur jacket and gold link handbag. ‘Your keys,’ I add, wondering what she’ll produce. Whilst she hunts them down amongst the piles of papers, books and clothes, I ask her how she’s been eating recently.

‘Haphazardly. Cereal. Coleslaw. Oh god – I cannot find my keys!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

it's coming

I’ve looked after people all my life. My mother. Three brothers. Years and years of it. Eighty eight years of it. It don’t feel right, me lying here. I’m the one supposed to be up and doing things. I don’t want to be a trouble to anyone. I don’t want to cause a fuss.

I look a fright. These are my work clothes. I was doing the cleaning. I can’t go out like this. The doctors won’t want to see me in this skirt. I knitted it years ago. The hems all gone to pot. At least it’s warm, though, which is more than I can say for your ambulance. Put that shoe on for me, will you?

I’m good with figures. That’s my thing. Turning them over in my head, bam. Six eights? Forty eight. I’ve always been good with figures. It just comes natural. Some people sing songs, some fix the electric. I’m good with figures.

It’s changed round here, though. I was born and brought up here, my mum, her mum, all the way back. It’s not nearly as good as it was. Them days, you shared it about. If you had a bit left over and your neighbours had nothing: There you go. It's yours. You looked out for each other. You kept each other going. Now, you look at the news and everywhere it’s the same - bad, bad, bad. The world He made, all gone bad. And then when you think about His Son. Sent down to help. What happens? Nailed to a cross. But the way I see it, you keep out of trouble, do your best, when it’s your time and you’re up there, standing in front of all them angels and whatnot, He’ll nod and go (thumbs up) You’re in, mate. The rest of them? Look out, that’s all I can say.

It’s coming. I can tell. Just looking out this window, I can tell.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Rae has recently moved to a house on the outskirts of town. Her dog, Jack, a black Springer spaniel crossed with something else, something intensely bright and loose and quick - a chimp? - lies planning something in his basket in the hallway. I can see him frowning at me as I peer through the letterbox and Rae fishes around for her key. As she opens the door, suddenly he’s up and running, turning crazy circuits of the place, a stunt dog on a motorbike riding a domestic Wall of Death.
‘Jack! Jack! Slow down mate!’
He shakes off his helmet, big ears slapping, sits for a biscuit.
‘Good boy! Good boy! Come on! Outside for a wee wee.’

Normally Rae’s shifts work out so either she or her husband Pete are around. But tonight Pete’s away for the kind of cricket meeting that won’t end until the pub is forced to close for maintenance, so Rae has to pop back through the night to say hello to Jack and let him out a couple of times.
‘Good boy Jack. Who’s a clever boy?’
Now he’s off rummaging around in the shadows at the back of the garden, building something.
‘Come on Jack. We’ve got to go.’
Putting a wheel on.

When finally we leave, he flumps down in the basket and licks his chops. Surrounded by stuff: chew toys, blanket, water, laptop. He watches us retreat, an expression of disappointed resignation, a school teacher who expected better.


A busy weekend night. There are plenty of ambulances working, but we hardly see each other. We run from job to job, passing over the city like shuttles on a loom, working out the pattern of the night: a teenager sprawled on a park bench; an elderly woman sprawled on a bathroom floor; a man clutching his stomach on a staircase; a man with his bloodied arm in the air on the steps of the Town Hall; a man shivering in the cab of a fire truck; a bloodied man in handcuffs – the material of the shift piling up and up on the board in the front of the cab.


‘Jack? Jack?’
He’s not in his basket.
We whisper on into the hallway.
I expect to feel the whack of a chew toy on the back of my neck, paws patting me down for the keys of the truck.
‘Where is he?’
Then we hear it. A sonorous rattle, like a tube train passing somewhere underneath.
Rae pushes open the sitting room door, and the light from the hallway spills through onto the sofa: Pete asleep where he landed, Jack curled up amongst the wreckage. He looks across at us. In the half-light, is that a nod? By which I think what he probably means is: I’ve got this one. You two crazy kids stand down.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


‘I need ice, Jan. Please. I’ll bleed out otherwise.’
Jack is sitting hunched over on the sofa, a wicker wastebasket lined with a plastic bag set on the coffee table in front of him, spilling over with bloodied kitchen towel. He has a freezer bag filled with crushed ice draped over the back of his neck. Jan, his girlfriend, the woman whose flat this is, stands by in attendance, smiling apologetically and wiping her hands on a tea towel.
‘Okay, Jack. I’ll see if there’s any left.’
Jack makes a dreadful, dredging kind of retch, and a clot like a plump red jelly flops out of his mouth into the basket.
‘I had an operation on my polyps two weeks ago,’ he gasps. ‘Started bleeding and it wouldn’t stop. Ended up in ITU for a week. They kicked me out a few days ago. I’ve been bleeding on and off like this ever since. Up to A&E twice, had my nose packed out, sent home. I told them – I’m gonna bleed and bleed and bleed, but would they listen? No. No one ever listens. So here we are. Have you got ice on your truck?’
‘We’ve got those chemical ice packs.’
‘They’re no good. I need ice.’
‘Let’s see how you get on with them, Jack.’
Reluctantly he submits to having the old pack taken off and one of our packs put in its place.
‘You should wrap it first,’ he says.
‘No, no. They’re designed for contact with the skin.’
‘It’s not cold enough.’
‘It’ll get cold. Give it time.’
Jan comes in with another freezer bag of ice.
‘Give me that,’ says Jack, blindly swiping the air in her general direction. ‘This thing’s no bloody good at all.’
‘I’ll follow up in the car,’ says Jan, gently putting the bag of ice around his neck with the formality of an alderman hanging a gold chain around the neck of the mayor. ‘To keep our options open.’
‘Someone’s got to do something,’ he says, then gags, and begins hauling a rope of congealed blood from his mouth that goes on for so long it’s like watching a magician haul a line of flags from his sleeve. I want to applaud when it comes to an end, but simply watch quietly as it follows everything else into the basket. ‘When I stand up, watch my trousers,’ says Jack, when he gets his breath back. ‘That’ll be the next thing.’
‘Don’t worry. I’m on your trousers,’ I say, as we manoeuvre the carry chair into position.
‘I won’t need that,’ he says. ‘I have to keep forward. That’s no good.’
He stands up. His trousers are firmly belted, but I give them a tug, just to make sure.
‘Hey! Steady!’ he says.
I hand him a vomit bowl, and he allows Jan to take away the basket.
‘So where’s this sodding ambulance?’ he says. With one hand around the bowl and the other grasping his nose, he shuffles out of the room and down the corridor. But suddenly he stops, and turns his head slightly to the side.
‘And just for your information,’ he rasps, ‘when we get to the hospital, I’m not doing a damned thing until you get me more ice.’

Friday, February 12, 2010

you're welcome

Early hours night. A transparent time, when the worn out threads of the old day begin to thicken and twist into the pattern of the new.

A vast black brick of a church weighs down this corner of the neighbourhood. A street light blazes at its feet.

A man and a woman argue under it.

‘I can’t believe you’d do this,’ she cries. ‘I’ve only just met you and you’re saying that.’

The man shakes a mobile phone in the space between them, as if there’s something stuck in it.

The woman is wearing a red velvet pillbox hat. Her yellow hair curls out abundantly from the sides and tumbles down around her pale face. It’s like someone has dumped a bowl of noodles on her head, and the sauce has made her makeup run.

She snatches the phone from the man, and starts prodding out a number with her thumb.

‘I can’t believe you’d do this,’ she says.

The man turns to us as we approach. His chin is rough with stubble, his smile like the rip of Velcro.

‘Sorry about this guys,’ he says, nodding towards the woman. ‘I expect you’ve got better things to do.’

‘What’s going on?’

The man is dressed in ratted combat chic, a partisan of cool, with an expensively bad t-shirt and farm-grade studs in his bottom lip and eyebrow and ears.

‘She’s in a band. We met in a pub. She got upset. She took some Aspirin. Her boyfriend’s a drummer. He’s in Wales. Her parents are divorced.’ Then he seems to become bored with the sound of himself. He terminates the report with a shrug of his shoulders and a meagre upturn of his hands. ‘Like I said, I’m sure you’ve got better things to do.’

‘Hello? Hello?’ shouts the woman into the phone. ‘It’s me. I’m going to hospital. I’ve taken some pills.’ Her words give way to a convulsive sob; she just manages to get out the name of the hospital, then jabs the phone off and tosses it to the man, who catches it with a little bob of the knees and a curiously self-conscious flourish, like a bad juggler at a children’s party.

‘You’re welcome,’ he says. And pops the phone in his pocket.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


‘Shall we go through and meet the patient?’
‘Just a minute. I need a word.’
This front room is too hot and Mrs Cherry is too close. She has that kind of three dimensional anxiety that will point in the same direction no matter how you view it. A set expression, drawn wide, like the hologram of the Cheshire Cat on a credit card.
‘I’ve not been well myself. I’ve had cancer – down there. I’ve had brachytherapy. Do you know what brachytherapy is?’
‘Erm – no, I don’t, actually.’
‘And you’re a paramedic?’
‘A technician. Like a junior paramedic, but still.’
‘And you don’t know what brachytherapy is?’
‘How long’s your training?’
‘Basic training ten weeks. A year’s probation on the road.’
‘My son’s a consultant neurologist. He works up in London. He’s done research.’
‘So what’s brachytherapy, then?’
‘Brachytherapy’s when you get radiotherapy internally. From inside. They put it into you, with a machine. Into your vagina. I also suffer from prinzmetal angina. Do you know what that is?’
‘I know what angina is.’
‘Well I get prinzmetal angina. Have you heard of it?’
‘Oh. I am surprised. It’s rare, but not that rare. It’s when the coronary arteries go into spasm. Look it up on the internet when you get home. I have to use a spray. The cardiologist took my ECG to America, to an international conference. They were going to operate but he stopped them at the last minute. So you’re not a paramedic?’
‘No. I’m a technician.’
‘Do you drive the ambulance?’
‘Amongst other things. But anyway – what do you need to tell me about your mother?’

But before Mrs Cherry can speak her husband, the son-in-law, Mr Cherry, a pressed and professional man with professional levels of restraint, steps forward. He has a coat folded over one arm, a travel suitcase in the other.
‘She won’t want to go to hospital so you’ll have to just take her.’
‘Well. We’ll see. Shall we go through and meet the patient?’
‘No. No. Before you go in, there’s a few things you need to know.’
The two of them begin a sniping crossfire of complaint. Enid has dementia. Enid is aggressive and paranoid. Enid scratches and screams. Enid says she was beaten up and thrown out of bed by her sister who lives down the hall. Enid says she has pain in her side. The doctor thinks it’s serious and wants it investigating.
‘Did the doctor leave a letter?’
Mr Cherry sighs, puts the suitcase down and hands me the letter.
‘Can you read it?’ he says.
‘Just about.’
Decreased mobility. Increased confusion. Query UTI and Acopia.
I re-fold the letter and Mrs Cherry is there in its place, smiling into me.
‘I’ll do my best to sweet talk her,’ she says. ‘You boys be as nice as pie, follow me and just put her in the chair. Hopefully between us we can persuade her to go.’

Enid is stretched out on the bed next door, moaning a little, a hand on her forehead. Mrs Cherry takes that hand and rubs it as she talks.
‘Mummy? Mummy dear? These lovely boys here are going to take you to the hospital. Like the doctor said. You’re going for a lovely ride in their ambulance, and they’ll take good care of you, won’t you boys?’
‘Yes. Absolutely.’
‘I’m cold,’ she says.
‘Shall I put her dressing gown on?’
‘There’s no need. We’ve got blankets here.’
‘I’ll put her dressing gown on.’
She sits Enid up who moans a little but is otherwise quite okay about it all.
‘Now no complaining,’ says Mrs Cherry, smiling more intensely. ‘You’ve got to go and that’s that. You know I’ve not been well.’
‘You’re off to the hospital,’ says Mr Cherry, supervising from the doorway. ‘No fuss now.’
Enid submits to her dressing gown being put on, and drapes her withered legs meekly over the edge of the bed. Mrs Cherry smothers her in encouragement from the sidelines as we help her transfer into the chair and wrap her in blankets.
‘Be a good girl, won’t you? You’ve got two lovely men here who’ll take fantastic care of you, won’t you boys? Now there’s no choice about it. It’s for your own good. The hospital’s a lovely place and they’ll get you better there. Won’t they, boys? Hasn’t she done well? She’s amazing, isn’t she?’
Enid patters out some words, shakes her head a little.
‘Oh come on, mother,’ says Mrs Cherry, smoothing her white hair down. ‘Don’t start.’ Then to us: ‘There. That wasn’t too bad, now, was it?’

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

you make me laugh

The buzzer buzzes and a second later the heavy green steel gate shudders once and trundles off to the left. Frank drives the ambulance up the ramp, turns at the top and backs in to the first bay of the custody suite. As we climb out an officer nods and smiles with a familiar, sharp-creased sense of complicity. He leads us to another green door, taps in a sequence of numbers, an internal bolt clanks, and we walk through an arched holding bay to another door at the far end. More numbers, another clank, and we reach the heart of the place, a bare, high vaulted room laid out in speckled green marmoleum, dominated by a raised control desk like the massive hub of a wheel lain on its side, each segment a counter marked left and right by dark screens, each counter with its own computer terminal and a small black camera set out in front, gazing outwards. A silhouetted pair of shoes marks the spot a person should stand in front of the counter, but around the hub disparate arrangements of people hang about in ones and twos and threes, snagged in their individual negotiations, leaning on the partitions or away, swapping things, chatting, swearing, staring at us as we come out of the bay and further into the room.

‘This way.’

He leads us over to a counter on the furthest side of the hub, presided over by an officer with such a small head and such spindly arms he could be a gigantic cellar spider in a starched white shirt, each limb moving independently, smoothly drawing out documents, answering phones, typing names - the whole business managed with dreadful efficiency from the pivot point of his squeaky black chair. He scrutinises us as we approach.

‘You’ve come for Phelan,’ he says. ‘Lovely. Here are the papers.’

He extends an arm about three metres in my direction, and drops into my hands a plain brown packet with the words: Section Papers printed in bold letters. ‘If you’d like to follow me.’ He rises noiselessly and high-steps ahead of us towards another steel door.

Phelan is curled up under a blanket on the bed shelf over against the far wall of the cell. The air is thick with parazone, stewed meat and tea, and the sweated layers of hours.
‘The ambulance is here to take you to Southview. I’ve got your things here in a bag.’ Phelan sits up. The officer produces from nowhere a clear plastic bag filled with a pair of rolled-up jeans, a mobile phone, a magazine and some coins – the whole collection secured at the top with a yellow plastic strip.
‘I’ll give it to the boys to look after. Meanwhile, can you be getting yourself ready, please?’
‘I want my phone,’ says Phelan, dropping the blanket. ‘You can’t keep my stuff. Give me my phone. Now.’
‘You’ll get it back at the hospital,’ says the officer. ‘Now be a good chap.’
‘I’ll sue you. I’ll sue you bastards.’
‘As you wish.’
The officer hands me the plastic bag.
‘Any escort?’ I ask him.
‘No. It won’t be necessary.’
Phelan slouches out into the corridor. By the time he has reached the threshold, the officer has re-wrapped him securely in the blanket, closed the door, found the key to lock it, tapped another officer on the shoulder to give instructions, checked his watch. ‘It really won’t be necessary,’ he says. Suddenly we are back in the hall. ‘Have a good trip.’


Phelan stares and frowns at me in the back of the truck.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask him.
‘Warm enough?’
‘The journey will take about an hour,’ I say. ‘If there’s anything you need, let me know. Otherwise – you could doze a little, if you like. I’ll put some music on.’
I stand up to turn the music on in the back, then sit back down and pull out a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from my jacket pocket. Smooth it open it to where I left off.

‘I am surprised at you, Sandy,’ said Miss Brodie. 'I thought you were the leaven in the lump.'

‘I want XFM.’
‘Put XFM on.’
‘We can’t get XFM.’
‘I want XFM.’
‘We just can’t get it.’
‘Put XFM on.’
‘Sorry, Phelan. I can do you Heart or Radio One. So I’m guessing Radio One.’
I smile at him.
He frowns and stares.
‘All right?’

‘I am surprised at you, Sandy,’ said Miss Brodie. 'I thought you were the leaven in the lump.'

‘Give me that,’ he says.
‘Well I’m not going to give you my book, am I? I’m reading it.’
‘Give it me.’
‘No. Sorry.’
His hair is cut into a pattern of tiny, square bunches, like the skin of a pineapple made out in black fabric, or a Google Earth shot of a place. It makes him seem uneven. He scratches the dry skin between the squares, then spends the next ten minutes trying to wrap his head in the blanket.

‘I am surprised at you, Sandy,’ said Miss Brodie. 'I thought you were the leaven in the lump.'

The blanket falls away and he stares at me again.
‘All right, Phelan?’
‘What Giveaways have you got?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Freebies. You know. Giveaways.’ He scratches his nose. ‘I need envelopes. Glue. It’s an ambulance? You got glue, right?’
‘Not really.’
He sticks his arm out straight.
‘Wrap that,’ he says.
For a moment I’m confused. Does he mean for me to touch fists, like a handshake or something?
‘What do you mean, wrap that?’
‘Wrap it. Wrap it. In bandages. It’s an ambulance, right? You got bandages?’
‘Yep. We’ve got bandages. But I’m not going to waste any wrapping them round your arm.’
‘Why not? You got loads.’
‘Yes, but. It’d be a waste.’
After a second or two he drops his gaze onto the Section Papers lying on the trolley in front of me. As innocently as I can, I pick them up, fold them in half and put them in my pocket.

He frowns and stares.

Then suddenly he laughs, a forced, thin sound, and he flaps the blanket either side of him and rises up a little, like a great tatty duck on a lake.
‘You,’ he says. ‘You make me laugh.’
But the laugh fades as quickly as it came, and he settles back into a long stare. I try to break it with conversation, but the stare blasts through my best efforts. Eventually I smile in surrender again, and get back to the book.

‘I am surprised at you, Sandy,’ said Miss Brodie. 'I thought you were the leaven in the lump.'

Suddenly Phelan is leaning forwards in his chair and his eyes have taken on a quicker, more glittering character.
‘I’ve got a suggestion,’ he whispers.
‘What’s that, then?’
‘Why don’t me and you kill your partner.’
‘I don’t think that’s such a great idea, Phelan.’
‘Go on. Why not? You’ve got a gun.’
‘Why would you want to kill Frank? He’s a lovely man.’
‘So? Who cares? Come on. Let’s do it.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Come on.’
Then suddenly that laugh again, glassy, high and brittle.
‘You!’ he cackles, settling back into the chair. ‘You make me laugh.’

Saturday, February 06, 2010

don't wake him

Billie sits at one end of the sofa in her tracksuit pyjamas looking ready to run, whilst storm clouds mass above the head of her father at the other end, a man so massy with anger he could be sculpted out of volcanic rock. He waves a scrip in the air.
‘Tight throat, dizziness, nausea, hearing voices, palpitations, muscular tremors, headache… she says she’s had all that since taking this rubbish.’
He drops the scrip at our feet.
Billie bites a nail.
‘It’s not so bad now,’ she says.
She had been prescribed Zopiclone to help her sleep, but says that an hour later she started to feel bad, phoned a helpline and they bounced her to 999.
‘I’m not normally like this.’
‘Have you got any pain anywhere?’ I ask her.
She rubs the centre of her chest with the heel of a hand.
‘And how long’s that been going on for?’
‘Ever since someone did CRP or something.’
‘CPR? Where they press on your chest to get your heart going?’
‘Yeah. That’s it. CPR. At football practice last week.’
‘That sounds bad. What happened?’
Billie hugs her knees, then whinces and resumes her former position.
‘I didn’t know much about it. I was playing football. The next thing, I’m in hospital, and they said someone had done CPR on me.’
‘Had something happened to your heart? What did the doctors say?’
‘They let me go after a few days. I’ve got some more tests to do. They didn’t say a whole lot, really.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’ says the father. ‘It’s all bullshit.’
Up until that point I’d thought that anxiety and hyperventilation was the problem, but now I’m not so sure.
‘I think what we should do is go out to the ambulance, do a few tests and take it from there.’
She flicks a look at her father, then stands unsteadily and grabs the tracksuit top that’s slung over the back of the sofa. The room is sprayed lemon, impersonal, like a furniture storeroom after a sale. I help Billie outside; the father calls Frank back for something.


‘It’s up to you whether you want to go to A&E tonight,’ I tell her, as she sits on the trolley staring at me with her pupils so black and deep the light in the back of the ambulance seems to pour down inside them like mist down a drain. ‘All your observations are fine. I’m sure reading all the side-effects on the drug sheet didn’t help. They always tend to list every conceivable problem just to cover themselves. But I must admit that story about CPR on the playing field threw me a little. Perhaps you should go in, just for reassurance if nothing else.’
‘I’d like to.’
‘Okay then.’

Just at that moment the back door opens and the father hauls himself up.
‘What are you doing?’ he says. I’m not sure if he means me or Billie.
‘You’re not going to that there hospital.’ He puts one hand up onto a grab rail and one hand flat against the window, his shirt riding up over his massive belly, and he hangs there obstructively, like a gigantic ape. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’
Billie examines her hands whilst I explain the reasoning behind the trip. Everything looks fine but given her recent history maybe it’s best if we go to the hospital. Just to make sure. For reassurance.
The father lets me finish, then turns his face slowly back to the girl without a change of expression.
‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’ he says, after a pause so freighted with contempt a needle in a lab must be scratching wildly backwards and forwards.
‘It’s Billie’s decision,’ I say.
Suddenly he drops his grip on the rail, turns, and leaves the ambulance, which bounces up an inch as he jumps the last step.
‘There’ll be hell to pay when I get back,’ she says to me, pulling a blanket up to her neck. ‘But at least it’ll be late and he’ll be asleep.’

Monday, February 01, 2010

lillian's living room

Once we have Lillian back on her feet, she starts the long, wooden shuffle back into the living room.

‘Can I get you anything, dear? Tea?’ she says. Which reminds her of the special birthday tea being arranged for her at the day centre next week.

‘One hundred,’ she cackles. ‘Imagine the cake.’

She walks with the comically disarticulated gait of a puppet, each limb jerked by its own invisible string, the zimmer rising and falling in her great knotted hands, a half dozen extravagantly crafted rings glimmering on her fingers, nails thick with pink varnish. But if Lillian’s figure is cruelly reduced by the passage of time, her eyes are bright, and she laughs often, a wide and gummy cackle so forgiving in its tone that even the blue porcelain washerwoman rabbit on the bookcase seems to hug herself and smile.

She plumps herself down in her favourite chair and begins rifling through a pile of letters and papers.

‘What’s your last name, Lillian?’
‘Broussard. B-R – oh, guess the rest. French, you know. From France. My second husband was from Paris. I met him in a pub somewhere. We were married ten years, then he upped and died. Like the first one. His own fault. Smoked, you see. Those French cigarettes.’
‘So what about your first husband, Lillian? Did you meet him in a pub as well?’
‘I wasn’t always down the pub you know. No. The first one was the accountant of the shop I was seamstress at. I’m not stupid.’ She taps the side of her nose, and goes back to the pile of letters, opening an exercise book that would have been new in the seventies.
‘Now then. Let’s see.’

Sitting in this room with its jumbled collection of pictures and books, plates and figurines is like sitting inside Lillian’s head. Above the fireplace is a large portrait of a middle-aged man in a black suit and tie, the whole thing vigorously patterned out in dots with the tip of a brush. Further along the wall, some oil paintings of fishing boats at low tide and other maritime scenes, then a darkly spotted plate photograph of an Edwardian couple and a baby wrapped in lace, followed by a whole sequence of silver framed photos of Lillian in different situations – Lillian in a ball gown posing on the arm of a smart young man in a bow tie; Lillian on the arm of a man in shirt sleeves posing in front of a greenhouse filled with tomatoes; Lillian at a table cluttered with people and bottles and glasses; Lillian holding a baby, next to a bed with an exhausted young woman. And then on cabinets and cupboard tops, a spread of painted plates, brass and bronze figurines, ancient porcelain boxes, presided over by the triumphant washerwoman rabbit, her little paws folded contentedly on the front of her pinny, her bonnet pulled low down over her eyes. And then down amongst the irons and brasses at the side of the fireplace, two leather hippos standing together - a mother with her calf, solid, serene, forbearing.

‘Come on, then. Find anything wrong?’ says Lillian, finishing with her notebook and tossing it back down on the table. ‘The doctors can’t. The last one, he said “Lilly, the only thing wrong with you is your age. And there’s not a damned thing we can do about that.”’